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Monday, December 22, 2014

On the decline and fall of discourse

Do not get this man mad at you.
While browsing the web the other day on the TOFian Geburtstag, we revisited the delightful Underground Grammarian (left), who is no less delightful for being dead. His works can be found for downloading and also for reading.

It was in his collection Less Than Words Can Say that TOF found his discussion of "The Two Tribes" and the distinction between the snakes made of flesh and bone and the snakes made of discourse that so wonderfully informed his classic post "Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice."

So for today mot justes,we will quote from his 1978 collection The Leaning Tower of Babel and his discussion of what was then only a possibility: the creation of a federal department of education. First, the Underground Grammarian cites a passage in a report from what was then the Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW)
The findings suggest that psychosexuality constructs of agency/communion can be meaningfully operationalized to reflect the degree of psychosexuality integration, with different modes of manifestations and different correlates of interpersonal behavior associated with various levels on the integration continuum.
To which he comments thusly:

[This passage] is the prissy pirouette of the practiced posture-master. Ah, what skills. How prettily he prances from the operationalization of constructs to the reflection of the degree of integration, and gracefully glides on into modes of manifestation and correlates associated with levels on the continuum. Ah, how smart he must be. And how professional. How proud of him his mother must be, although probably not, we'd be willing to wager, nearly as proud of him as he is of himself. The attribute that always leaks out of such writing is that supposed virtue that educationists have chosen, ignoring logic in the service of sentimentality, as both a requisite to education and its best reward--Self-esteem.

The voice of that passage, however, is not just the voice of self-esteem. It is the voice of a man full of self-esteem. It is the pompous voice of self-awarded authority, the voice of command, the mighty voice from "above," in which no decent human should speak. It is Father Tongue.

...Men and women are different, essentially and (we hope) ineradicably. Men don't grow up. Pure seriousness seizes only a few of them, and only from time to time. They pretend to be something. They pretend to be sages or soldiers, or anything in between. Even the most witless and inept can find some system, made by men and for men, that will pay him for pretending to be a superintendent of schools, or a language arts facilitator, or something.
"Pretending to be a superintendent of schools, or a language arts facilitator, or something" is indeed a mot juste. It is the "or something" that graces the sentence and raises it above the pis-elegance of operationalized constructs of agency. Unless TOF has misspelled that sobriquet.

He then discusses a classroom "workshop" in which students who would never garble sentences in the manner presented are invited to ungarble them.
To make a bad thing worse, the concocters of this silliness can't even garble skillfully. Having vouchsafed that "word order affects the meaning of a sentence," and having asked that students assemble "clear and sensible sentences" from "groups of words" that could never occur naturally, these reading experts proceed to dream up "problems" of this kind:
  • the knights made out of marble sat at a round table
  • persons in distress rescued the knights
  • some knights went in search of holy objects on quests
Try now to imagine the plight of those unlucky sixth graders--there are plenty of them--who can see, as anyone but a reading expert might, that those "groups of words" are "clear and sensible." If there is anything at all "wrong" about them, it is only that they will not win approval from the teacher, who can easily discover, by looking it up in the handy teacher's guide that comes with Expressways, that those clear and sensible sentences are not the clear and sensible sentences that the reading experts had in mind, not the "correct" solutions to "problems" that would never have existed in the first place if it weren't for the fact that the reading experts always need tricky new gimmicks to put in their unbooks.
The exercise pretends to ask a question about grammar, the system of principles by which we all, sixth-grade children included, can and do form any of an infinite number of possible sentences, including the three supposed "problems" cited above. But in fact, it asks a question to be answered out of that minimal kind of reading that is really nothing more than the reception of communication. And, probably for the remediation of those obstinate students who persist in suspecting that it is by form, not content, that a sentence is a sentence, there is a postscript to all this absurdity. It's called "Interaction":
Make up your own scrambled sentences about how Merlin could help you. Have a classmate unscramble your sentences.
It's not enough, you see, although it is required, that educationists commit nonsense. They are, as they are always saying, such giving and sharing people. And when they commit nonsense, everyone commits nonsense.
This was written in AD 1978, so TOF's Faithful Reader can see that the collapse of Western Civilization is of long standing. It did not even require a full cabinet level department, only a satrapy within a broader-defined department. Given what "educationists" accomplished with only a third of a department, we can only stand in awe of what they have done with a full one.
++++++++
Lagniappe:
The Underground Grammarian taught at what was then Glassboro State Teachers College and is now yclept Rowan University, having given up in the meantime on the training of teachers. TOF cannot resist the following snip, also from the aforesaid collection, and leaves you with this thought:
And fortunately, while we do still permit the study of a few foreign languages here, we find that most of our incipient schoolteachers don't even need to be advised to choose Puppetry Workshop or the History of Jazz rather than French or German as what we call "humanities electives." They know a humanity when they see one.
There's nothing humane about irregular verbs, and an obsession with foreign language is even more dehumanizing for the teachers than for the students. The teachers are supposed to know the irregular verbs. And the case endings--all of them. And the use of the imperfect subjunctive. And thousands of un-American idioms. You can be pretty damn sure that any teacher who is actually an expert in some foreign language has put more effort into rote learning than into relating to self and others, and will almost certainly be more interested in the mere facts of a narrow discipline of dubious relevance than in the true goals of education: appreciation, awareness, global and/or environmental consciousness, and rap sessions on death and Gay Rights. We are not the least bit interested in turning out that sort of teacher, thank you.

4 comments:

  1. Wow, that is spectacular. Gotta go read this guy.

    I blame the German philosophers. On the list of, let's call them World Historic Tragedies, Kant and Hegel (and Fichte) rank above the 2 World Wars - we got over those, and rebuilt. Kant, at least, had the humility to admit he was a terrible writer; Hegel's inscrutability is a feature - perhaps the key feature - not a bug. Since at least William Torey Harris, an 'educationist's' educationist and US Commissioner of Education at the turn of the last century who tried to make Hegelianism the official philosophy of the US, the educationists have retreated into difficult language that always permits one to claim (often with dismissive condescension) that the reader just didn't *understand* what was being said. Sheesh.

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  2. So Glassboro is famous for something besides the 1967 summit between LBJ and Alexei Kosygin!

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  3. Read his newsletter from the first issue to the last. You won't regret it!

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  4. "When we say our thoughts clearly, we often see that they are stupid."

    I am both laughing with tears in my eyes and trembling with fear reading these newsletters.

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